A Tree, a Trail, and a Tale

A little-known trail, an unnamed waterfall, and the third tallest tree in North Carolina

Editor’s Note: I’ve had to publish a number of COVID-19 articles over the past couple of days and thought folks could all use a little nature. Locals should check this hike out, it’s easy, quick, and awesome.

The Plateau is chocked full of amazing day hikes for all seasons, but one that doesn’t usually make the guidebooks is the Padgett Poplar Tree Trail, which leads to the third largest tree in the state.

The trail is named after James “Bob” Padgett, forever a conservationist who spared the tree in 1966 when he worked as a Ranger in the U.S. Forest Service. Padgett turned down a bribe of $1,000 by logger Tearly Picklesimer, who wanted to cut the tree down to sell its old growth lumber, according to Heart of the Blue Ridge by Ran Shaffner.

The 127-foot Padgett Poplar Tree is the third largest tree in North Carolina.

The tree tops out at 127 feet, has a 20-foot girth, and a crown measuring 76 feet. The tallest tree in the state is a tulip tree recorded at 192 feet at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the second largest is recorded at 130 feet in Cherokee. Word from locals in the know said the Padgett Poplar would be the second tallest if it wasn’t struck by lightning decades ago blasting the top off.

The Bob Padgett Tulip Poplar is named after Forest Ranger and conservationist James “Bob” Padgett who saved the tree from being cut down in 1966.

Helen Raymond-Goers and her husband Steve were visiting from Cincinnati, Ohio last summer and took an afternoon to check out the Padgett Poplar.

“I have been known to stop my car along the road to read plaques or markers on things that I wasn’t even interested in to begin with,” said Helen. “I love that stuff. And the more personal it is, the more I like it. The fact that one dude saved that one tree is somehow more interesting to me than a bunch of people saving a whole bunch of things. Throw in the nature element and I’m sold.”

A small unnamed waterfall flows along the trail the the Padgett Poplar Tree. Editor’s Note: It’s gorgeous, but it’s where I first crashed my drone, Madroni, and fully submerged it in the creek. Madroni lived to fly and crash many more times, but eventually met its demise at the Highlands Biological Station’s Botanical Garden. RIP Madroni.

Helen said she visited Sequoia National Park that has larger trees, and saw The Senator (largest and oldest bald cypress in world) in Florida before it was burned, so it wasn’t the oldest she had ever seen, but it was still something to behold and would recommend making the trip.

Steve Goers and Helen Raymond-Goers visited the Padgett Poplar Tree in Highlands last summer before social distancing guidelines were in effect. Most people had never heard the word COVID when this photo was taken.

“There are so many lovely hikes in and around Highlands, that this one would probably be easy to overlook, but it is a perfect, ‘I have an extra hour of day’ kind of wander,” said Helen. “Not only is it a short, easy hike, it is a beautiful hike. Anyone who doesn’t take the opportunity is missing out!”

Keep your eyes peeled while hiking for the little things along the trail.

The loop trail spans less than a mile and passes a small-unnamed waterfall. The area is gorgeous and is known by bird enthusiasts as a hot spot on Plateau. The entire loop can be hiked in an hour or visitors could spend hours enjoying nature. The base of the tree makes a good picnic area if you don’t mind sitting on the ground.

The author was excited to be outside droning in the woods, fully unaware of the cataclysmic drone crash that was about to ensue.


To get to the trailhead from downtown Highlands, go east on Main Street, which turns into Horse Cove Road (SR 1603). Drive on Horse Cove Road for approx. 2 miles to Rich Gap Road (FR 401). Turn right on Rich Gap Road and go approx. 300 feet to a parking area and kiosk on the left side of the road.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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